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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 340-345

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Selling Off the Great Society

Daniel T. Rodgers

Michael B. Katz. The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001. 469 pp. Notes and index. $35.00 (cloth); $17.00 (paper).

It is almost forty years since the "war on poverty" began, but its presence still colors virtually every aspect of contemporary American life. The endeavor to eradicate poverty in affluent, post-World War II America was a messy affair, rife with contradictions. It created new layers of bureaucracy, new labyrinths of rules, more than its share of unworkable programs, and rafts of unintended consequences. Within a decade it had doubled the fraction of the GNP devoted to social welfare, largely through the construction of public health insurance systems for the old and the very poor. It changed the experience of old age in America, by cutting an elderly American's odds of falling into poverty (which were still 4 in 10 in 1959) by almost two thirds. It saw the population on public assistance grow blacker and browner, more feminized, and much larger as a tide of rising expectations breached many of the barriers of shame and humiliation that poor relief officials had historically counted on to dissuade Americans from asking for public assistance. And it reduced income inequality for the last time in the twentieth century before the relentless, post-1970 march toward ever greater economic inequality began. By the end of the war on poverty's first decade, there were nine million fewer Americans trying to scrape life together below the poverty line than before, a number roughly four times the total population of the state of Mississippi at the time.

In the process, the war on poverty also repolarized American politics. By the 1970s, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs had become a lightening rod for conservative and neo-conservative critique. "Maximum feasible misunderstanding," Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously characterized one of its key policy experiments. Whether it was the burdens of governmental "overload," the insupportable proliferation of "entitlements," or the perverse incentives of the "welfare mess," the failings of the war on poverty had by the 1990s become a political touchstone, in differing ways, for new Republicans and new Democrats alike. [End Page 340]

The Price of Citizenship is an account of the last dozen years' skirmishes in these social policy wars, a deeply informed and broad-ranging attempt to make historically contextualized sense out of social policy's present trends and configurations. Like the policy makers and policy scholars who clearly form a key part of the book's intended audience, Katz does not write as a neutral on these issues. The Clinton administration's two sharp disappointments to liberals and progressives—the unraveling of its health insurance initiative and its capitulation in welfare's abolition—hang palpably over his pages. Nonetheless, on a terrain newly rife with mythmaking, the synthetic historical sections of The Price of Citizenship offer as authoritative a guide to social policy's American past as one can find in print.

Working historians, on the other hand, may find the most challenging aspect of Katz's accomplishment in watching an historian with a lifetime's expertise in the history of poverty and social policy undertake to write at virtually the cusp of the present moment. For The Price of Citizenship represents an uncommon genre: the historian as contemporary social reporter, sorting out the ground patterns in the welter of current events, archiving the past as it unfolds before us.

The chronological bookends of Katz's account run roughly from 1988 to 1996. His core chapters open with the Family Support Act of 1988, which undertook to tighten the requirements for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the most visible and contested program of direct federal assistance for the poor. They close with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which terminated AFDC outright, ending welfare as Americans had known it since the Great Society—and, indeed, with its impositions of lifetime term limits on public assistance...


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